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Europe is blessed with a wealth of iconic destinations that are immediately recognisable the world over. Flash up a picture of the Colosseum or the Eiffel Tower and the essence of a whole city, perhaps even an entire nation is captured. These are the places that millions of visitors are drawn to, and will always be icons of the European travel experience.
In a roughly geographical order, running west to east, here are some of our favourite icons. It’s not a complete list by any means, and we’re probably inviting several emails of the ‘how could you leave out’ type, but here goes. Stonehenge. Ok, it’s not on everyone’s list, but for a monument that was possibly erected up to 3000 years before the birth of Christ it’s still got some remarkable pulling power.
Even today ‘Neo-druids’ complete with white flowing robes and false ‘Santa’ beards troop up to Salisbury Plain to celebrate the Winter Solstice. Notwithstanding the more comical visitors, this is an undeniably mystical and magical place, harking back to an ancient Britain of wizards and Arthurian legend. So take a look and perhaps include a visit to the delightful city of Bath as well – the Roman baths are well worth seeing.
In December 1952 a London Double-decker bus actually jumped the gap when Tower Bridge suddenly opened up in front of it. It’s unlikely that you’ll witness a similar incident while crossing the bridge, but there’s every chance that you’ll see this proud symbol of London raise its immense arms to passing vessels. Take the suspension footbridge spanning the top of the twin towers and enjoy a view of the Thames rivalled only by the London Eye.
Until the completion of the Chrysler Building the Eiffel Tower, soaring 300 metres above Paris, was the tallest structure in the world. Constructed from over 12,000 pieces of iron for the 1889 World Exhibition, this muchloved icon originally stirred up negative responses from Parisian opinion leaders and it was touch and go whether it would survive beyond the Exhibition. Now the tower’s graceful curves are a treasured part of the national identity and deserve a place in everyone’s travel memories. Make it a part of yours by just sitting on the grass with a baguette and simply staring at it, or if you have a head for heights go to the top for spectacular views over the city.
It’s not often that an enduring legacy is the reward for shoddy construction, but that’s the unique result of woefully inadequate foundations beneath The Leaning Tower of Pisa. The tower began to sink on one side after construction had progressed to the second floor, and continued to sink as the dogged builders pressed on through 344 years of stop-start work. To contain the problem each level was constructed shorter on one side than the other in an effort to counter balance the increasingly dangerous tilt. Now the 14,500-ton structure has been stabilised at nearly four metres out from the perpendicular and since 2001 has been open to the public again.
The immense volcano of Vesuvius still towers over the Bay of Naples, a brooding menace that every Neapolitan knows will erupt again one day, and the evidence of its destructive power is the remarkable Roman city of Pompeii. In AD 79 an eruption suddenly buried everything under 4 to 6 metres of ash and pumice. This cataclysm effectively sealed the entire city in a giant time capsule where it remained hidden for nearly 1700 years. With the discovery and subsequent excavation of much of the city the detail of everyday Roman life has been revealed; palaces, sports stadiums, houses and even shop walls scrawled with ancient graffiti provide a wonderful opportunity to walk through history. The hard-packed ash has also revealed some more poignant tableaus of the city’s demise. By pouring resins into cavities discovered in the ash, the form of previous residents and even horses have been revealed, often in the throes of an agonising death.
When the Iron Curtain descended across Europe after the end of WW2 the resulting wall split Berlin in two, and The Brandenburg Gate was marooned in the no-mans land between hostile forces. Commissioned by Frederick William11 of Prussia in 1788 as a sign of peace, the neoclassical triumphal arch has since witnessed upheaval and destruction. Nazi armies have marched through it and it was a focal point for the celebrations when The Wall finally came down in November 1989. Today The Brandenburg Gate, which suffered damage during allied bombing campaigns and the final assault of the victorious Red Army, has been restored to its former glory, and every New Year’s Eve attracts over a million Berliners for a spectacular fireworks display.
Some of Europe's icons impress with their scale, and with others it's the artistry of the creators that casts a spell. With Hagia Sophia in Istanbul it's both. Built during the rein of the Emperor Justinian, it was for nearly a thousand years the world's largest cathedral. During its long lifetime it has been a centre for Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Muslim worship, but today it's a museum open to all faiths. Come here early to avoid the crowds and marvel at the skills of ancient artisans who created the breath-taking dome suspended over 55 metres above the vast marble nave. You'll also be entranced by numerous colourful mosaics, that even today are still being uncovered from beneath layers of plaster.
In the centre of the nave you can also see coloured discs that mark the spot where the last of the Roman emperors were crowned, and where Emperor Constantine prayed before going out to face the ultimately victorious Ottoman besiegers of legendary Constantinople.
Another way to consider candidates for your own 'icon list' is to look at the possibility of including an entire scene. Amalfi's romantic coast has to be considered an iconic Mediterranean setting in anyone's book. The tiny coves with jumbled houses climbing precipitous slopes and a winding road chiselled into the face of precipitous cliffs, with sparkling blue water below, is an iconic image that has the power to transport you to sun-drenched terraces, shaded by vines bearing huge Amalfi lemons.
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